Other than the love of food itself, there is nothing that New York City restaurant fanatics enjoy more than dining one-upmanship. Telling all your friends on Facebook that you had uni (sea urchin) for the first time is the first step. Uploading an Instagram picture of you devouring testicargot at Takashi means you’ve leveled up, bro.
But no achievement seems to be more audacious than completing the Sannakji Chulpan at Sik Gaek with a few frightened friends. I personally don’t understand why gulping down live octopus is at the top of the adventurous-eating pinnacle. Perhaps it’s less daunting to the Korean-American community because this is what our parents grew up with in their motherland.
The Outer Boroughs episode of No Reservations, featuring Anthony Bourdain and David Chang, got everyone excited about making a trip to Woodside. I couldn’t even locate Queens on a map at the time, but I had to find the restaurant no matter how far it was from Manhatttan. The Sannakji Chulpan did indeed turn out to be an evil Korean version of a Le Grand Plateau de Fruits de Mer.
A meal at Sik Gaek starts with a small plate of tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) as well as eggs two ways (scorching hot Korean chawanmushi & fried eggs cooked on the stove top). The banchan (and only banchan) is no other than a bowl of aged kimchi.
After overcoming the fear of a live, chopped up octopus crawling off of the plate, clamping on to the sides of your cheeks, and testing your gag reflex, you’ll eventually realize that Sannakji just tastes like the sea (very refreshing, y’all). The dipping sauces are nutty sesame oil and spicy red pepper paste. Sometimes you’ll get a hint of garlic from the octo tentacles. Other times, it tastes like jalapeño.
If live tentacles aren’t exactly up to your alley, perhaps grilled shellfish is less daunting. The selection changes each day, but expect staples like clams, shrimp, and mussels. We luckily stumbled in on a night featuring abalone and conch that went straight into our bellies.
Korean seafood pancakes are usually available in any Korean restaurant in the city, but Sik Gaek has managed to make one of the best. The key component is the tender, quality chunks of octopus in the batter. The pajeon is crispy and light, not mushy and heavy like many other pancakes.
The impressive pot represents a tasting of the sea. Clams, mussels, shrimp, conch, and abalone swim in a vessel of spicy broth. Live lobster and octopus are added fashionably late to ensure shock value for the guests. Allowing two creatures to slowly expire might seem unethical to many, but I assure you that this purpose of cooking shellfish alive is to ensure freshness.
After devouring all the wonderful goodies, ask for the fried rice special. Your server will proceed by bringing out a heapin’ helpin of white rice topped with nori, scallions, kimchi, and fish eggs and then mixing it into the remaining broth. Crispy fried rice with fish roe on a cast iron pan is one of the finer things in life.
Sik Gaek’s mission is to recreate comfort foods that older generation Koreans (like Mama & Papa Cho) crave during the winter time. Don’t let the fear of eating live foods discourage you from taking the trip to Woodside. Expect quality service, large portions, and endless comps throughout the night, making you feel like royalty.